Embrace Opportunity: Good Things Come to Those Who Serve

Below is the text of MIT President Emeritus Charles M. Vest’s charge to the graduates, delivered at MIT’s 141st Commencement held June 8, 2007. Vest served as president from 1990 through 2004. He will begin a six-year term as president of the National Academy of Engineering on July 1.

Before I begin, I must tell all of you that I have listened to more commencement speeches that you can imagine. I have also invited more commencement speakers to campuses than you can imagine.

From this I learned that students usually feel that they were short-changed. Hypothetically … just hypothetically … they might say things like “Jeez. Harvard got two Bills and all we got was one Chuck.”

But it’s okay, because I want to speak to you … not to the world. And, because this is MIT, I am going to talk to you about Big Things — namely Opportunity and Service.

Here are two things I know about opportunity:

First, MIT is the greatest place on the planet when it comes to radiating education, opportunity, and service.

Second, you never know when or how opportunity will materialize. Don’t try to plan it or predict it because you’ll undoubtedly be wrong.

How do I know these two things about opportunity? I know them because of the two letters I received from MIT during one 22-year period. I received the first letter from MIT in 1968. It informed me that the Institute was not interested in my application to become an assistant professor.

So in Ann Arbor I happily taught, did research, wrote a book, painted the house, helped Becky raise our children, and above all else avoided committee assignments.

But 22 years later in 1990 a second letter came from MIT … this one asked me to serve as MIT’s president. Not in my wildest dreams as a young faculty member, could I have imagined that one day I would be called to serve as president of this remarkable institution.

So always read your mail from MIT. There is an outside chance that instead of asking for an alumni donation, it may ask you to be president … or perhaps commencement speaker.

Being president of MIT brought me experiences that I could barely have dreamed of. Because of the opportunities created by education and by the place of MIT on the world stage, I would come to meet, know, or work with the kings, queens, presidents, premiers or prime ministers of many nations; with the first human to set foot on the moon; with great artists and musicians; with the leaders of huge corporations; and with remarkable young entrepreneurs.

So what happens when you’re with the powerful and famous?

Well, in 2001 my wife Becky and I had tea with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace.

Would you like to know what she said to me? She asked what I thought about Harry Potter. Thank goodness I knew enough to mumble something about muggles and Hogwarts, but believe me, it was a close call.

Or consider this: In 1994 I found myself in the East Room of the White House when all living Apollo astronauts came together to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first moon landing. As I was leaving that event, both Carl Sagan and the President of the United States sought me out to shake my hand and thank me personally for a small role I had recently played in our space program.

With swelled head and adrenaline rush, I floated out of the White House to catch a taxicab. Then I heard someone on the street call my name. I turned around to find a former MIT graduate student, who proceeded to berate me with a five-minute litany of pent-up complaints about some aspects of her experience here. She was certain that I had been personally responsible for all of them.

There’s nothing like encountering an MIT graduate to keep your head out of the clouds and your feet on the ground!

But my real point here is that education — and MIT — opened amazing doors of opportunities to me — opportunity to learn, opportunity to teach, and opportunity to serve a greater good.

Indeed, the opportunity to serve is what I have valued above all else. I had the opportunity to serve as a voice for science, engineering, and higher education, and for the importance of our nation being open to scholars from all over the world — at a time when America sorely needed to think about these things.

And I want you to know that the people I have most valued knowing and working with are not the leaders of nations, or corporate titans … they are my faculty colleagues: the intellectual leaders, the teachers and scholars who are the essence of MIT, and who give you and gave me the opportunity to literally change the world.

The opportunities for which they have prepared you will be as breathtaking as they are formidable ... and most of them are beyond today’s imagination. One reason is that they are mostly global in scale and very complex. Another reason is the continuous acceleration of technological progress. The future is rushing at us more quickly every year. Just consider this:

After the automobile was introduced, it took 55 years (in essence a lifetime) for 25 percent of the U.S. population to have a car.

It took 35 years (the length of a typical career) for the telephone to reach 25 percent of the U.S. population.

It was 23 years for radio, 16 years for the personal computer, 13 years for cell phones, and only seven years for the World Wide Web.

Do you feel the acceleration? This exponential growth?

Well we’d better get used to it. Three thousand new books are published every day. And the amount of technical information is doubling every two years.

But along with all this acceleration and exploding information, you have entirely new tools. Many of these new tools come from information technology or from 21st century life science.

Your generation … is already leading us into a new domain of global interaction. I am convinced that your way of communicating and working: Second Life … Wikipedia …YouTube … social networking, social computing … open innovation … these things reflect a fundamental transformation.

You can and must guide this transformation. You can use it to make money. You can use it to revel in catching politicians and movie stars making stupid mistakes. Or you can use it to bring what James Surowiecki calls “the wisdom of crowds” to work together to solve important problems and to build a more inclusive, engaged, and more egalitarian world. It’s your choice.

That’s about information. What about the life sciences?

We are barreling along three great frontiers of 21st century life science and biotechnology — frontiers that present extraordinary challenges and opportunities:

The first is to realize the promise of genomic medicine — to put a powerful base of rational science beneath the practice of human medicine, and to tailor medical treatments to each individual patient.

The second challenge is to dramatically advance our understanding of the human brain and mind … of memory, learning, and communication … and to attack the mental and emotional illnesses that today wreak havoc on so many lives.

The third is to revolutionize much of engineering, using the stuff of life as templates. And using biological mechanisms to design and grow new materials and to create new production techniques that mimic the efficiency of nature — thereby greatly reducing the environmental footprint left by industry.

Or to cite a more prosaic example: last year researchers announced they had cloned pigs that make their own omega-3 fatty acids. Imagine, on the horizon, sausage as health food.

But there is more. Already the term “biohacking” is heard along the Infinite Corridor.

“Biohacking” … just think about the significance of that term! It of course heralds the advent of synthetic biology … the fusion of engineering and biology to design and build novel biological functions and systems.

Will these new capabilities of information science, life science, engineering, and their combination be used for good or ill? How will you grapple with the ethical and legal questions that will come along with these new powers? How will you influence the public discourse and action on these questions?

These are enormous challenges — in large part because technological advancement usually outpaces social advancement.

For example, the design of the Internet that forms the basis of so much opportunity in the world today was predicated on mutual trust … trust that you are who you say you are and are doing what you say you are doing. But now we have viruses, worms, and phishing. (That’s P-H-I-S-H-I-N-G. You have to explain to your parents what that means.)

These human-developed technological evils can be serious. Just a couple of weeks ago, hackers brought down the cyber-structure of an entire nation, Estonia. This is a highly wired country, and its government, business, and economy were very seriously impacted.

Because of all this, colleagues tell me that the Internet must now be redesigned with security — rather than trust — at its core. And we are all aware of the debates around genetic counseling, stem cells, and genetic modification of crops and food.

Such redesigns and such debates are a necessary part of life in a free society. But you must be prepared to engage in the public dialogue and bring to it your own moral compasses and your commitment to applying the rationality of science and engineering to improving the human condition.

But let me turn the clock back 50 years.

Each of us has a few moments of seemingly random moments of the past that from time to time spring into our minds with full clarity of sight, sound, and feeling.

One such memory for me is simply of walking to high school on a sunny morning in 1957. I lived only two houses from the school, so if I left home when the first bell rang, I could make it into my seat before the second bell.

Be that as it may, I remember on that day a feeling of absolute joy, well-being, good fortune, and optimism. The air was warm and clear; the American flag was fluttering in front of the school; the sky was blue — and the sky was the limit.

Life was good. The fact is that joy, well-being, good fortune, and optimism were the right things for me to feel. Life indeed was good … if you were a boy growing up middle class and white in an American college town in the 1950s.

Much water has flowed over the proverbial dam in the years since then. But you know what? I still believe that my optimism was well founded.

You may say “Yes, but when you were young your world was much simpler and certainly more insular than ours.”

“Today, we face incredible global challenges.

“We have to improve the world’s health, economies, security, and quality of life.

“We have to provide water and food for the burgeoning peoples of the earth.

“We have to give them clean air to breathe and clear blue skies to make their spirits soar.

“We have to provide the energy that they will need to lessen their burdens, integrate them into the world community, and give them economic opportunity.

“We have to cure their ills and safeguard their wellbeing.

We have a much harder road than you did. Why should we be optimistic?”

Well, in some ways you are right. But let me leave you with another perspective.

When I was young, I sat in our comfortable home in front of a black-and-white television and watched an interview with Dr. Tom Dooley, an American medical doctor serving people in Asia in the midst of unfathomable poverty and dire living conditions. Dr. Dooley held up in front of the camera a tiny, ill, starving child with a distended belly. Now, I have to explain that in the 1950s, such sights were never seen on television, or even in magazines. It was shocking, and I recoiled emotionally.

But then he calmly said, in essence, “When you look at this child you see something horrifying, but I look at this child and know that I have the knowledge and the skill to make him well.”

I believe that simple statement is a metaphor for what the graduates of a great university, especially one with the focus of MIT, can and must do — make the world well.

Yes, you do grasp the complexity of the world and you understand the enormity of its challenges, … but you also have the new tools to resolve them.

In the end, I believe that knowledge and skill trump ignorance, and that optimism trumps pessimism. If you believe this and if you embrace the opportunity to serve, you will find personal happiness and fulfillment beyond expectation, and you will benefit our world and your fellow men and women beyond measure.

Good luck, and Godspeed.